Defining Personalized Learning

mazeThe term "personalized learning" came up recently in several articles about Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife Priscilla Chan investing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in a new vision of “whole-child personalized learning.”

Their recently established Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) intends to support the development of software that might help teachers better recognize and respond to each student’s academic needs. But they also intend to use a holistic approach to nurturing children’s social, emotional, and physical development. That's a tall order. And not one that has not been attempted before.

In the 40 years I have been an educator, I have heard about personalized learning under terms like individualized instruction, personal learning environment, direct instruction differentiation and even adaptive learning. All refer to efforts to tailor education to meet the different needs of students.

The use of the term "personalized learning" dates back to at least the early 1960s, but definitions still vary and it is still an evolving term. In 2005, Dan Buckley defined two ends of the personalized learning spectrum: "personalization for the learner", in which the teacher tailors the learning, and "personalization by the learner", in which the learner develops skills to tailor his own learning. This spectrum was adopted by the (2006) Microsoft's Practical Guide to Envisioning and Transforming Education and has been updated by Microsoft in other publications.

CZI now has former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education James H. Shelton as the initiative’s president of education. It is encouraging to me that he said “We’ve got to dispel this notion that personalized learning is just about technology. In fact, it is about understanding students, giving them agency, and letting them do work that is engaging and exciting... Many people have a preconceived notion that ‘personalized learning’ is a kid in the corner alone with a computer. Forget about that.”

CZI will direct 99 percent of their Facebook shares (an $45 billion) to causes related to education and science, through a combination of charitable giving and investment.

Being in technology, you would expect Zuckerberg to want to put a lot of the money and efforts into that area. That's what happened with many of the efforts that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have made in education.

Adaptive learning - which I don't see as the same thing as personalized learning but some people do -  is an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices. The technology allocates both the human (teachers, tutors, counselors)  and mediated resources according to the unique needs of each learner. Computers adapt the presentation of educational material according to students' learning needs. A lot of computer-aided assessment and responses to questions, tasks and experiences direct the next step for the learner.

Adaptive learning technology encompasses aspects derived from various fields of study including computer science, education, psychology, and brain science. Although this approach is not teacher- or student-centered, it does attempt to transform the learner from passive receptor of information to collaborator in the educational process. Adaptive learning systems have been used in education and also in business training. 

CZI realize this personalized learning will extend over decades. They began in December 2015, shortly after the birth of their first child.

The Initiative has invested in BYJU’S, an India-based startup behind a popular online-learning app, and Enlearn, a Seattle-based nonprofit that has developed a new adaptive-learning platform. CZI has also partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on a $12 million “venture philanthropy” grant award. 

When I was starting my teaching career in the mid-1970s, the personalization was mostly driven by teachers and rarely used technology. 

But how does this fit into the newest version of the main federal K-12 education law, Every Student Succeeds Act. Unfortunately, our national plans usually only last for only 4 or 8 years (based on administrations), so we never see a cohort of students go through an educational lifetime. The new law does seem to push states and schools to think about more than standardized-test scores when determining what it means to help students thrive.

Do we need a clear and set definition of personalized learning in order to move forward? How does the CZI idea of educating the "whole child" fit into personalizing learning? 

Virtual Reality Education and Flying Cars

holodeck

The Holodeck

People love to use the prediction that we would all be using flying cars by the 21st century as an example of a future technology that never happened. Remember how virtual reality and the augmented reality was going to change everything? So far, it's not.

Last summer, Pokemon Go was huge and even though many people would dismiss it as a silly game, it was AR and seemed like it might change gaming and who knows what else. The promise, or perhaps more accurately the potential, of VR in education is also a popular topic. 

We know that the Internet enabled students to access materials from other institutions and to travel to distant places for their research. Virtual reality may one day change the ways in which we teach and learn. That has me thinking about "virtual reality education" - something I imagine to be unbound by physical spaces like classrooms or campuses and time.That sounds like online learning, but it would be beyond the online learning.

Remember the "holodeck?" Originally, it was a set from the television series Star Trek where the crew could engage with different virtual reality environments. It came back into my view with Janet Murray's book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. She considered whether the computer might provide the basis for an expressive narrative form in the way that print technology supported the development of the novel. In the 20th century, film technology supported the development of movies. 

And remember virtual worlds like Second Life and Active Worlds? I knew a number of educators and schools that made a real commitment to its use in education. I don't know of any of them that are still using virtual worlds.

I'm hopeful that VR, AR, or some version of a holodeck or virtual world will some day enhance education, but so far, I'm still operating in Reality Reality.